Social distancing, wearing masks: Help students with autism follow rules

Many students with ASD are known as keen rule followers, but they may need extra support in following rules associated with safety that are in place because of COVID. Following are 8 ideas to try.

You may know students with autism as keen rule followers who encourage their peers to also follow instructions. But what if a student with autism has a tendency to seek out sensory input by bumping into his classmates when he is supposed to be social distancing?

Students with ASD may struggle with the new behaviors they must engage in to stay safe and healthy in school. But to address their needs, your staff should rely on techniques they had already been implementing with students.

“It’s important for teachers to use all the same teaching strategies that they used before the pandemic because students are always learning new behaviors and new routines,” says Aimee Dearmon, a speech-language pathologist and Board Certified Behavior Analyst at STAR Autism Support in Portland, Ore. “We have to think about what worked best for that student in the past and try to use the same teaching strategies.”

Encourage teachers to use the strategies below to help students follow rules associated with COVID-19.

Social distancing

  • Create a map. Give the student a classroom map that spells out in words and pictures where everything is in the room and what each area’s function is in light of social distancing, Dearmon said. For example, a teacher may label a desk “independent work” on the map if that is where she wants the student to sit when he has completed an assignment and has time to engage in a preferred activity.
  • Offer pre-teaching with visuals. Pre-teach the skill of social distancing using social narratives, video modeling, and role play in the classroom, Dearmon suggests. Also, in accordance with state and district guidelines, post signs in the student’s classroom and other areas of the school she frequents that depict social distancing by, for example, showing two students with an arrow and the words “six feet” between them. “Provide visuals that show students behaviors we want them to do,” she says. Then, when the student stands too closely to a peer or staff member, remind them to follow the rules and point to the visuals you have posted.
  • Provide reinforcement. Find out what rewards the student is willing to work for and have those items or activities available to reinforce appropriate social distancing, Dearmon says. A teacher may prompt the student to move away from another student if he violates the six-feet rule and reinforce the student for moving away, but it’s more effective to highlight the correct behavior when it happens and reinforce the student for engaging in it.
  • Decide on a replacement behavior. You may find, through observation and data collection, that a student may bump into her classmates for sensory input despite having learned about social distancing and receiving reinforcement when she maintains six feet between herself and others. You may have to find a replacement behavior that will allow the student to get that sensory input in an alternative way, Dearmon says. The student’s occupational therapist may have some ideas for what else the student can do. Also seek the student’s input. You may also want to offer the student choices when possible to give her a sense of control.

Wearing a mask

  • Discuss the need for masks. Some students may be confused because they are only used to seeing doctors wear masks and are not sure why their teacher and they have to wear them, Dearmon says. Clarify why everyone needs to wear masks at school to stay healthy and safe. A teacher may want to show the student a social narrative about the need to wear masks to prevent the spread of germs.
  • Address sensory needs. Use video modeling to show the student how to properly put on and wear a mask with limited amounts of touching to keep him and others safe, Dearmon says. If the student removes the mask because he is uncomfortable, just give the simple direction to put it back on. “A lot of attention or reprimanding may reinforce the inappropriate behavior,” she says. A simple reminder to put the mask back on while pointing to a visual support with a student wearing a mask would be more effective, Dearmon adds. The teacher may also want to let the student take a short break with the mask off away from others if possible.


  • Use timers. The student may need to use a visual timer to ensure she thoroughly washes her hands, Dearmon says. She may also benefit from singing a favorite part of a song or counting while washing her hands.
  • Post reminders. Posting visual supports that depict in pictures and words the routine for handwashing near the sink may help the student stay on track while going through the additional motions, Dearmon says. A partial prompt with an elbow bump or modeling may also help the student complete the now longer routine.

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology, and IEP team issues for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.

Most Popular